Marking the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, 2016 is the year that saw almost every theatre company giving a go at the Bard’s repertoire, with multifaceted and often unexpected outcomes. Following the same line, Buckle Up Theatre has unusually put aside comedy and physical theatre to present a cutting-edge version of Macbeth set during the Cold War, where the king is depicted as a high-ranked member of the secret police. The result is a well-devised and upbeat 100-minute play which, however, resent the burden of the Elizabethan language.
As a Shakespeare connoisseur, you might enjoy the innovative values within the original script but if you – like me – are unfamiliar with the subtleties of the plot, you might struggle to keep up with its development. Some of the lines remain hopelessly obscure and doesn’t help the fact that an exiguous cast of five is called to cover several roles, sometimes with hardly perceptible costume changes. If you add to this a noisy group of schoolkids at the back of the 130-seat Lovegrove auditorium, then you might have little attention left to appreciate the ground-breaking angle of this modern Macbeth.
Nonetheless, Buckle Up manages to design a gripping performance – despite the modest budget – and the Cold War setting finds an immediate sensorial counterpart in the glacial blue lighting that pervades the space. I was astonished to find out that, for this specific production, the company hasn’t relied on a dedicated creative team but every member has collaborated with director Michael Woodwood to conceive some truly haunting scenes. The witches are covered on floor-length waterproof capes that shriek at every movement. Macbeth (Neil Sheppeck) and Banquo (Andrew Hollingworth), immersed in a thick fog, discuss suspiciously pointing flashlights to each other faces. Some nasty deeds happen behind a veil of white gauze and, in more than one occasion, I found myself sitting on the edge of the chair. The reminiscently cinematic music, with its Hitchcockian flavour, also contributes greatly to maintain this sinister atmosphere.
The cast is minimal but its presence and distribution on the nearly bare stage is strong and well-paced. The killing of Macbeth agrees ingeniously with the era of chemical weapons and Neil Sheppeck is outstanding in the title role. He flawlessly delivers the emphasis of a troubled man, whose eyes fill with tears of horror and face blushes in fear. The rest of the actors offer a remarkable support, in particular Sioned Jones as Lady Macbeth, who steals the scene with her bloodthirsty and dominating influence.
Now that Buckle Up has found an engaging modern setting and a suitable staging for Macbeth, I wonder if it’s also ready to break away from the linguistic tradition and follow the steps of some opera companies – like OperaUpClose – who translated some European classics into English. Although I recognise the prominence of Shakespeare’s poetic dramaturgy, I think nowadays priority should be given to accessibility, allowing also the general public to enjoy thoroughly the developments of such an absorbing plot. I’m certain that Buckle Up Theatre has all the potential to knock down the language barrier and make its Macbeth even greater.
Review by Marianna Meloni